Initial release 30th March 1934 (USA)
Director William Nigh
Produced by Paul Malvern
Screenplay by Albert De Mond
Cinematography Archie Stout
Released by Monogram Pictures
Run Time 62 minutes
Ed Lowry Dylan “Jack” Armstrong
Verna Hillie Ella Browning
John Sheehan Harry Smith
Brandon Hurst Hindu Priest
Joyzelle Joyner Chanda
Fritzi Ridgeway Stella Walker
Clay Clement John Prendergast aka John Pren
George ‘Gabby’ Hayes David Fells
Dale Fuller Mrs. Geraldine Carfax
Harry C. Bradley Prof. Horatio Potter
Irving Bacon Police Insp. Ned Pickens
Mary Foy Mrs. Hyacinth Potter
Sam Godfrey Jerome Ellis
House of Mystery opens somewhere in Asia in 1913 and we see a busy market place with traders going about their business. Next comes the appearance of a drunken John Prendergast (Clay Clement), an American archaeologist arriving at a bar and ordering a brandy. The customers in the bar look on, which causes Prendergast to remark ‘do I look funny or something?’. One of the customers comes over to him and gives him some good advice ‘might it not be well to cut down on the drink a little’ He is asked where he is going and at this stage it becomes apparent that he and his habits are well known to them. He is going to see the temple dancers who are high-caste Hindu girls. Getting involved with one of these being that he is not a Hindu, could end with his disappearance some dark night. He aggressively tells them to mind their own business, but the bartender then warns him that getting drunk in this country is a good way of getting into trouble. A scuffle breaks out and he is thrown out. He tries to go back in, but we see him having second thoughts and he walks off. Back in the bar a discussion about him has started with the conclusion that although he is supposed to be an archaeologist the only thing he has discovered so far is the dancer Chanda over at the Kali temple. We have seen a little bit of humour once again creep into our movie, a stock offering of these great films.
We now move to the temple and the sound of oriental music, where a dancer is seen performing in front of the temple dwellers. The sound of men shouting along with the sight of monkeys scrabbling high up on the temple walls is followed by Prendergast being forcibly brought to the Hindu Priest. He has killed one of the monkeys that roam the Temple, or in the words of the Hindu priest ‘ why hast thou slain one of Kali’s little ones’ Prendegast claims it was an accident as it jumped on his shoulder and he just struck it with his crop. His bad temper once again gets the better of him and after being accused of carrying out his work purely for money and betraying his profession, he breaks loose and strikes the Priest, much to the horror of the onlookers. The “Curse of Kali” is placed on him and we see a gorilla which has seemingly been lifeless in the corner, start to move with the intention of attacking. Prendergast appears horrified, but the day is saved , as we see a door open and he is beckoned to escape through it by Chanda (Joyzelle Joyner), the dancer we had seen earlier in the Temple. Chanda, his native girl friend, helps him escape.
The story now moves on with the headline in a newspaper, ‘Treasure Stolen from Ancient Temple in Asia’ and it implicates Prendergast and Chanda. The headline we learn is over 20 years old , when Prendergast had disappeared with Chanda.
Nothing had been heard of the couple since, but now he has been spotted in the United States by Mrs. Potter (Mary Foy), who has put two and two together and is certain that she has found him. She is married to an absent-minded professor who was one Prendergasts’ original sponsors, Horatio Potter (Harry C Bradley). The Potters have gone to see a lawyer, Jerome Ellis (Sam Godfrey) about her discovery. They want their share of the treasure. The Prendergast’s are apparently now living in style under the name of Pren, on a big estate in the suburbs. Mr Pren is an invalid in a wheelchair. Mrs Potter comes over as the overpowering wife who has obviously decided she wants her share whether he likes it or not. Our lawyer suggests that it would strengthen their case if he acted as the attorney for all the investors and asks if they have a list of them all. Organised as she obviously is, Mrs Potter produces the list and asks that Ellis gets in touch with them.
As instructed, Ellis writes to all the interested parties and invites them to attend a meeting in his office. The meeting duly takes place and we see them all in attendance as requested. Ellis now does a role call to ensure all are present. We have already met the Potters. We meet Jack Armstrong (Ed Lowry), a young insurance salesman, who immediately insists he wants to get it all over with as quickly as possible, as he needs to get on with his daytime job. Next a wealthy hypochondriac, Geraldine Carfax (Dale Fuller) and her clairvoyant companion Stella Walker (Fritzi Ridgeway). Geraldine tells them all that she had to get off her death bed to be there. Our insurance guru immediately tries to sell her a policy. Lastly we have gambler David Fells (George ‘Gabby’ Hayes).
These represent the only survivors. Mr Potter asks what had become of the English investors only to be told that they had died suddenly and mysteriously six months ago. Apparently they were murdered and Scotland Yard is still investigating the case. Next we hear that Ellis has already been in touch with Prendergast who has admitted his identity, his name being changed due to personal reasons. He would be very glad to meet the investors to agree a settlement, but there would be certain conditions. These would be explained when they all met at 8.30 the next evening. We witness another moment of humour as Mr Potter says he will not be able to attend as he needs to be at the museum to view the unwrapping of the mummy of Ramses IV. Quick as a flash his wife calls him a worm and says that if he does not attend she will make a mummy out of Potter the first! Armstrong quips ‘Ramses, I used to smoke them’
At his estate, the partially paralysed Prendergast, who employs Chanda as his housekeeper, explains to the suitors that, in spite of attempts on his part to appease the priest and the curse and having travelled all over the world there was nowhere he could escape the curse of Kali. Finally, he announces, he went back as he wanted to return the treasure to the temple, but the priest wouldn’t take it. They said it was accursed and that any person who benefited from it would also be cursed . His own health was ruined and the two English shareholders were murdered when he attempted to pay them their ill-gotten earnings. He had returned to the United States to spend his last days in the country of his birth.
Although intimidated, the group still wants their share. Prendergast agrees on the condition that they all stay in the house for a week in order to fully appreciate the curse that goes with it and the effect it will have on them as beneficiaries. Their share is two million dollars and is in the house in the form of gold and jewels. Ellis says the terms are very reasonable. We see Jack trying to befriend Ella Browning (Verna Hillie), Prendergast’s pretty English nurse. The guests are expected to return the following day. During the discussions we hear clanging noises which startles our heirs. A glib comment suggests it is one of Prendergasts ghosts, but the answer is much simpler. A plumber is putting in a new heating system. We see the plumber working on his radiators and listening at doors and cannot help thinking that this will result in another twist to our story?
Once installed in the house, Stella has an idea to organise a séance to contact the spirit of Kali. We also see David Fells being pressurised by his bookmaker. Armstrong is still trying to impress the young housekeeper and we learn, with a tongue in cheek moment, that she already has a policy. Her policy is not to get too friendly with strangers. She does however tell how she became involved with the family and tells him of strange noises at night, Tom Toms and footsteps on the stairs. Armstrong suggests that the whole thing may just be a hoax and says he thinks Chandra is sinister, more like Ghandi’s ghost. On attending to Prendergast it is obvious he has a soft spot for his nurse, which is much to the dismay of Chanda, who is standing at the back of the room looking on.
As a scene setter we see the Potters in the garden with our attorney. Poor old Mr Potter is in his wife’s bad books again. We have just learnt from her that instead of packing his clothes and sending some bones to the museum, he has once again fouled up.The clothes are at the museum and the bones on her bed. Our Attorney brings the script back on course, when he shows the Potter’s a note which warns him against letting his clients go to the Pren house. The threat is that they will be killed one by one.
They all assemble for the séance and after a short discussion about the pros and cons of what they are about to do, all place their hands on the table. The lights dim and the séance starts. We see a shadowy figure lurking in the background, which looks like a large gorilla. It is next seen standing behind Mrs Carfax and moments later we see she is dead, her neck broken. Our plumber is then found just outside the room and is dragged in. What was he doing? He appears very evasive and the decision is to send for the police.
With a screech of tyres enter Inspector Ned Pickens (Irvin Bacon), our detective, who announces no one is to leave. Prendergast informs him that Miss Carfax has been strangled by an ape as a result of a curse. He sets up a search of the grounds, but they find nothing. The whole atmosphere is tinged with humour as our detective suspects all and Jack Armstrong tries to take advantage by pushing his insurance policies. The plumber who is working on the radiators is also suspected. The detective does not inspire any confidence to say the least. Again another below par member of the law.
We see the detectives now sharing their view, but they appear to have very little idea as to who is to blame. They can find no apes, the servants know nothing, but Pickens now thinks that Prendergast is not a cripple after all. He sends one of his sidekicks to go and try and find out the truth. We see one of the detectives now approach our host and suddenly kick him, much to the horror of the guests. My foot slipped, he claims, but there was no physical reaction by Prendergast to the assault. Enter our plumber again in suspicious circumstances claiming once again that he has lost one of his tools.
The gorilla now reappears, be it a clever one, as it has no trouble opening a door. Panic then brakes out with screams and when the group hears more tom-tom’s they all rush upstairs. They discover Fells, dressed in a gorilla costume, dead. His neck is also broken. They all think the mystery is now solved, until we hear that Fells was at the séance table at the time Mrs Fairfax was killed and therefore could not possibly be to blame. They smell incense.
We hear from Pickens that the search must go on as no ape is going to make a monkey out of him. Really ? Fells, they decide acted the way he did as he needed all the money he could get to pay off his gambling debts. The Potter’s now want to leave, but are prevented as Pickens will not let anybody leave until the murders are solved.
Those drums are heard again and it is noticed that Armstrong is now missing. We discover that Jack has been attacked by a real ape in one of the upstairs rooms, but that it has escaped through one of the windows. This doesn’t stop Pickens accusing Jack of the murders and is about to arrest him when we hear more screams. Downstairs we find Stella dead and Prendergast unconscious. Prendergast claims he heard the drums, saw Stella move towards the French windows to get some air, scream and then saw the ape come through the window and attack her. At this point as always confusion rules. Patience is all we need to get us through.
All accuse Pickens of being incompetent and he agrees to take statements and call it a night. The idea he says is that they will all meet at the District Attorney’s office the next day. Again the drums beat, a door opens and our red herring plumber pops up again as he wanders through it. When asked if he knows anything about this Tom-Tom, he glibly asks what his last name is. Mrs Potter is of the view that the only way to prove your innocence is to get yourself killed.
Prendergast is then taken out into the garden by Chanda to get some fresh air. No sooner has this happened then we see the door pushed ajar, a revolver appear and see two shots fired. A note is placed on a small statue, apparently a note from Scotland Yard telling Pickens to get Ellis and his clients out of the house and take them to Ellis’ office. The aim is to make it look as if he is giving up on the case.
Miss Browning also finds a note in her bed from Scotland Yard telling her to go to the office of Attorney Ellis as her life is in danger as well. She goes to say goodbye to Prendergast telling him she is frightened there will be more murders, but agrees to stay once she is reassured that the departure of the heirs will mean there is no more danger. We hear him say,’ after all, a brave little nurse does not run away from her duty’. We see a jealous Chanda overhear him propose to Ella. She agrees to stay.
The next day in Ellis’s office we see the arrival of Scotland Yard, who turns out to be our plumber. As you would expect from one who is from the home of crime solving, he has solved the murders. He has no real evidence yet and insists on waiting for Ella before telling the whole story.
Back at the house, Prendergast is trying to persuade Chanda to take a trip back home alone. He says he is busy, but will join her later. We see him get out of his wheelchair and push it away remarking ‘not bad for a cripple eh?’ He congratulates them on having fooled everybody with the curse of Kali. Chanda is not the forgiving type however and is not fooled by the ploy to get her out of the house. Revenge ? We see her put something into a metal dish which then starts to smoke as she leaves the room. The stuffed gorilla that we thought was harmless comes alive and moves towards Prendergast. We hear the Tom-Toms and see the gorilla attack.
Outside the room we hear the telephone ring and Chanda answers it. It is from our intended heirs. On the other end of the line they hear what is happening. We now see Ella come running down the stairs. Chandra persuades her to return upstairs and then goes back into room and sees the body. She exclaims ‘It is done o Kali, revenge is thine’ She pushes a bookcase, opening a secret passage and our gorilla escapes. Just as it departs we see the stuffed gorilla returned to its stand. Led by an anxious Jack, we see the police rushing to Prendergast’s house.
Another foul deed by the jealous Chanda. The door in Ella’s room opens and again the smoking dish is brought into play. It is placed next to her Ella’s bed. The Tom-Tom’s start again and the gorilla tries to attack Ella. She screams and runs. Our intrepid rescuers arrive in force and rush upstairs to Ella’s room. She is lying on the floor with the gorilla standing over her. Shots ring out and our gorilla falls to the ground.
Pickens rushes over to the corpse and tries to take the head off to identify the killer. He is shocked to find it is a real gorilla. The final scene sees all our survivors in the hall with our intrepid man from Scotland Yard claiming its all too obvious. Six months before an ape had been stolen from the Metropolitan Zoo. Earlier than that, the same thing happened in London. Chanda, a priestess of Kali, had trained the ape to kill the first person it came across after it heard the Tom-Tom’s and smelled the incense. The gorilla was hidden in the secret passage behind the bookcase.
Pren was the organiser and effectively the murderer. The jealousy of Chanda put paid to the whole scheme when she had Pren killed and also attempted to murder Ella. We see Pickens go off in a huff despondent that he had solved nothing. For the last time we hear the drums and everybody screams. Thankfully it turns out to be the absent minded Professor Potter who has found the drum. His wife calls him a numskull and faints.
You could be forgiving when you look back at the 1930’s and examine the budget offerings. We had mystery films, old dark house films and those featuring men in gorilla suits. You could argue that this film was intended to cover all bases. We ended up then with the House of Mystery, a mystery movie with a respectful dose of comedy thrown in.
The story is entertaining enough, which I suppose is really what it’s all about. Also, the old mansion is one of the better ‘dark house’ settings I’ve seen. Director William Nigh, who directed 119 films in a career spanning over 30 years, was also responsible for directing several Charlie Chan and East Side kids’ movies. The latter I was a great fan of in my youth.
He also was responsible for another film that had an Ape as its theme, but this time it starred Boris Karloff . This was Karloff’s last picture in a series of six that he did with Monogram.
The film comes in at just over the hour which makes it worth the little investment in time it needs. Overall, fans of the dark house films should give it some air time and I trust will not be too disappointed.
It does remain quite enjoyable with a funny cast of characters and some interesting plot turns. The tom-tom drums will either bring a smile to your face or drive you mad. When all has been resolved at the end of the film we get a final twist when we hear them again. It turns out to be the absent minded Professor Potter who has found them and cannot resist the temptation!
John Prendergast is challenged over his unsociable behaviour
Prendergast is bestowed with the curse of Kali
The Potters stake their claim to the spoils
The investors gather to stake their claims
Pren explains the curse
The drums and then the first death
Our useless detective arrives on the scene
Another death, but who is the murderer ?
Scotland Yard arrives. Who else, but our suspicious plumber
Chanda with the help of a friend gets her revenge
Two apes are better than one. The answers emerge
The final drum roll. Cased solved