by Paul Batters
‘Did you ever run away from the scream? You can’t. It will follow you through the woods. It will follow you all of your life’. Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson)
Cinema is filled with films that are celebrated and considered as timeless classics. Many are deserving of such celebration, yet there are many (at least in the opinion of this reviewer) which are not so deserving. More to the point, there are too many films that stand in the shadows and go unnoticed or unheralded. These unhidden classics need to be brought out into the light and celebrated. They are not always conventional and may even be unpolished and raw, yet that gives them an authenticity and value that makes them classics. Delmer Daves The Red House (1947) is one of those ‘hidden classics’ that deserves to be honoured.
The Red House has been described as noir although it is perhaps closer to the mark being described as a ‘horror film. Yet my contention is that this cinematic gem is a classic of American Gothic. The film’s strength lies in its unique approach to the conventions of the Gothic genre, conveyed through brilliant cinematography and delivered by a solid cast, underpinned by Miklos Rozsa’s musical score. Ultimately, it is a thriller where the audience is torn between the possibilities of the supernatural and the powers of suggestion. This Lewtonesque approach melds beautifully with the storyline and, like the protagonists in the story, we are led through winding trails in the woods trying to discover what the truth is.
Dawes transforms George Agnew Chamberlain’s 1943 novel of the same into a tale which perfectly traverses rural Americana with traditional Gothic tropes, in a fresh and interesting way avoiding cliches that would often turn up in far more celebrated Gothic films. Dawes establishes this in the opening scene, where the narrator describes an idyllic American farming community, where the farmers raise ‘good apples’ in ‘fine soil’ – a beautiful metaphor for the young people, who are a ‘healthy lot…where the girls don’t come prettier anyplace’. The wholesomeness of this salt-of-the-earth farming community, however, also contains a deeper secret. The mystery is already suggested by the ominous presence of Ox-Head Woods, where civilisation has yet to penetrate, with its deep, dark woods criss-crossed by broken trails leading to nowhere. Immediately, the audience is placed on a trail which will symbolically lead into a darker mystery.
The Morgan farm is described as having ‘the allure of a walled-castle…which few have entered’ accessed only by one road. Even in a rural America of farms, warm sun and the film’s focus on youth, the link to classic Gothic themes is beautifully linked. The symbolism of the Morgan farm as secluded and distant from the rest of society, suggests secrets, family trauma, tragedy and hidden tales. Here live Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson) and his sister Ellen Morgan (Judith Anderson) with their adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts). They are ‘self-sufficient’ with little need to interact with the outside world, ‘content with how things are’ and no need for outsiders to ‘spoil things’. Pete has a wooden leg from an old accident which also reveals a sub-plot involving Ellen and her unfulfilled love for the valley doctor who helped Pete when he lost it. Meg loves her adopted parents and she doesn’t question how she came to be adopted. She loves Nath (Leo McCallister) who much to Meg’s dismay is going steady with Tibby (Julie London). Dawes will take this seemingly simple orientation immediately into darker Gothic thematic concerns and build tension with a deft hand.
Dawes also touches on subjects which the Code must have shuddered at and yet incredibly still find their way onto the screen. Teenage sexuality and relationships are both more than overtly looked at and indeed become a central theme connected to the storyline. From the opening scene on the school bus, Nath is told by Tibby to bring his swimming trunks to their ‘swimming date’ so they can ‘change at the reservoir, just the two of us’. Next to them, the shy, innocent and pretty Meg sits disappointed but silent, knowing full-well what is being suggested. It becomes clear that Meg loves Nath but it is a love from afar and she says nothing as she treasures their friendship.
But Meg’s love and affection for Nath reveals something darker in Pete Morgan that the audience recognises goes beyond the normal concerns of a father or guardian. When Meg begs Pete to give Nath a job on the farm, Pete gives in to Meg because he could ‘never turn her down’. All seems friendly enough after a hard day’s work as Nath sits with the Morgans for supper but as he’s about to leave for home, Nath mentions taking a shortcut through the Ox-Head Woods. Suddenly, Pete’s manner changes and he argues with Nath that it would be foolish to take that shortcut. Nath ignores Pete’s pleading which becomes more frantic. As Nath steps out into the night, the howling wind and darkness barely drowns out Pete’s near-mad rantings of the ‘screams in the night’ from the ‘red house’. The complexity of Pete’s deep psychological pathology emerge in waves of panic and near-madness, revealing his fears as he calls out ‘did you ever run away from a scream?’ As Nath disappears into the night, across the wind-swept fields, Pete goes back inside looking near-mad, eyes wide as he mutters away to his sister and himself. Ellen knowingly looks on but Meg is confused as well as afraid. Here, Dawes takes a brilliant turn into the fine line between supernatural and human fear, as Nath becomes scared and disoriented in the Ox-Head Woods. Is there some supernatural force conjured up the wind? Or is his own primeval fears fuelled by Pete’s rantings? Are the screams coming from some terrible presence in the woods? Or the result of the wind in the trees accentuated by a highly charged imagination? What does the red house have to do with all of this? At any rate, terror overcomes Nath, who makes his way back to the farm. Pete seems to regather his wits and dominance, his fears and concerns abated by Nath’s return and his secret therefore safe for the meantime.
Nath is the boy Meg loves and he will become the agent of change for not only Meg but the Morgan household. Like a lord who dominates his estate and sits all-powerful in his castle without question, Pete sees Nath as the great outside threat to his power and hold over Meg. Nath is a young boy becoming a young man, wanting to assert himself. Pete blames Nath for Meg’s change but as Ellen points out to her brother, Meg is growing up and has a right to her own life. She will begin to ask questions which emerge after the first fateful night, and as any teenager on the cusp of adulthood, will seek her own autonomy. This will also push Pete over the edge, as she disobeys his demands that she not ask questions. Nath and Meg will both seek out the red house, seeking answers to deeper questions which for Meg will reveal far deeper truths than she anticipated. In their quest, they will grow even closer together. Pete uses all manner of means to pull Meg closer to him and drive Nath apart from her, from giving gifts to Meg and even threatening her, as well as doing what he can to encourage Nath and Tibby’s romance. Pete will go so far as use Teller (Rory Calhoun), the local no-account school drop-out to inflict violence and keep Nath (and Meg) out of the Ox-Head Woods. It seems that Pete will stop at nothing to hold onto Meg.
Pete’s jealousy will not only border on the incestuous but almost cross it, enough for the kind Ellen Morgan to ask Meg if Pete has ever touched her. Pete’s now tender grip on reality will see him calling Meg another name which Meg seems to recognise but is unsure where to place. In one disturbing and alarming scene, the audience watches Pete standing at the lake’s edge on a small pier watching Meg swimming. As she approaches with an innocent smile to the edge, Pete stands suggestively over her, looking at her strangely and calling her ‘Jeanie’. Meg is obviously scared and disturbed, as she is also vulnerable in her swimsuit. Later, as Meg is in her bed at night, Pete will come into the room and stand at the doorway calling her Jeannie. Again, the dark secret and mystery that underpins Pete’s growing madness is a long-repressed truth which is too big to be hidden for much longer. The red house becomes the powerful focal point for that truth and Nath and Meg’s search for it will enrage Pete.
The terrible secret is not one which only haunts Pete, as Ellen has sacrificed her own happiness to try and protect the people she loves and cares for. The rumours and gossip about the ‘mysterious Morgans’ perhaps also asks the question about the relationship between brother and sister, and if something more is going on. Long-suffering Ellen tries everything to convince Pete that he needs to let Meg live her life and save him from his madness but it is all to no avail, as Pete descends further and deeper into the chasm. The lesson that Ellen tries imparting, that everyone has their Ox-Head Woods, falls on deaf ears. The darker Gothic overtones of seclusion, growing madness and the oppressed sexuality channelled into darker outlets all emerge in The Red House.
The climax is still powerful high drama, even if the audience has put most of the puzzle’s pieces together. The red house itself becomes more than a symbolic focus for Pete’s madness or Meg’s search for truth. In the red house itself, all will finally be revealed as history is repeated in the ruins of the old house and the mystery finally see its denouement.
The cast of The Red House is solid and the younger cast who hold a fair amount of the screen time do a commendable job. Leo McCallister does well as the farm boy and he has some solid mo ments on the screen. Allene Roberts, in her film debut, is particularly interesting as Meg, who is reminiscent of the kind of roles sometimes taken by Cathy O’Donnell or Teresa Wright. Conveying an ‘innocent beauty’, with her slightly breathless voice, Roberts carries the role with an unexpected strength. Julie London, also in her film debut, is incredibly sensual as Nate’s girlfriend and smoulders with her suggestive glances and claims that she is ‘already a woman’ after excitement and adventure beyond the valley. Whilst initially looking down her nose at Teller, she is also excited by him. The earliest screen encounter when Tibby gets off the school bus shows Teller waiting for her, looking like a proto-50s rocker with his tough stance and long rifle pointing at her, with obvious Freudian overtone. Teller smiles lecherously telling Tibby that he’s ‘learned plenty of things they don’t teach in school’ which scares her but also entices her, betrayed by her backward glance at him. Eventually, Teller’s prophecy that when Tibby ‘decide(s) on a man, you come to me’, will prove correct and see Nath rejected by Tibby. Rory Calhoun takes on a minor role as a plot device to drive the story and does enough with it as the bad boy who will lead Tibby into trouble.
Of course, Robinson and Anderson are the veterans who bring their superb skills to the fore. Dame Judith Anderson supports the story with her usual depth and gives room for everyone else to deliver their performance. But for this reviewer, Robinson gives one of his finest performances and is evidence for The Red House as a hidden classic. He never chews the scenery and tempers the character’s descent into madness with well-timed fits and starts that mesh perfectly with the psychological decline of the character as well as the plot. He seems to have a permanent weight on his shoulders befitting Morgan’s tortured soul. He uses not only physical movement beautifully but expresses emotion through facial expression and even voice, lurching between his character’s love for Meg, the desperation to keep his madness in control and the defeat when it overwhelms him completely.
The Red House is wrongly described by some as a ‘haunted house’ story, but it certainly is one of a man who is haunted; by his past crimes, by the pain of unrequited or ‘stolen’ love and the terrifying and twisted love he feels towards the young girl in his care. In essence, it is a pure Gothic tale of secrets which would tear all down around them if revealed, as well as free those bound by them. In the climax of the film, Pete himself asks that he could be free of the screams as his ‘castle’ collapses around him. It will mean final peace for his tortured spirit. But it will also mean that Meg finds her questions answered and she takes a step into a future no longer determined by Pete or the terrible secret which has them all prisoners of the past.
The Red House has suffered from the unavailability of a decent print for years, as well as its presence in the public domain meaning cheap VHS and DVD releases or compilations with B-features. As it is in the public domain, it has also been available online as well. As a result, it is easy to dismiss it as a B-feature and one to be overlooked. Yet it deserves far greater attention. It was a ‘sleeper hit’ upon its release and received solid notice. Dawes’s direction is tight, even if there is a little fat that could use some trimming, and its unique as an American rural Gothic tale. More to the point, The Red House is an American hidden classic which deserves its’ place in the pantheon of films from the classic era.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.