Friday, March 18, 2016

The House in the Woods (1957)

The House in the Woods is a quirky low-budget 1957 British thriller about a couple who dream of getting away from the rat race of the city and finding solitude in the countryside. They find a charming cottage near a wood that is just what they were hoping for and it’s very inexpensive as well. Of course when you find something that seems almost too good to be true, sometimes it is too good to be true.

Geoff Carter (Michael Gough) is a writer but he cannot write unless he can find peace and quiet. His wife Carol (Patricia Roc) sometimes thinks that he may have too much of a taste for solitude. The cottage is being rented out by Spencer Rowland (Ronald Howard), a painter who no longer paints. Spencer lost his wife a few years earlier so probably he just needs a little longer to get over it.

It will take a week for the lease to be finalised and Spencer suggests that the Carters should move in right away, if they don’t mind sharing the house with him for a week while the paperwork is being processed. In fact he suggests they move in right this minute - they should drive back to their old flat and collect their things this very night. After all if they want solitude there’s no time like the present.

And solitude they will have. As Spencer points out, the nearest house is five miles away, there is no telephone and nobody knows the Carters are even here since they left no forwarding address. In fact Spencer seems quite interested in this point. Of course the Carters will have to write to their previous landlord giving notice but that’s no problem - Spencer will post the letter for them.

Spencer seems like a decent fellow although somewhat inclined to melancholy. Carol thinks it’s a good sign when he asks her to sit for a portrait - surely getting back into painting again will be good for him.

Meanwhile Geoff is starting work on a novel. It will be a murder mystery about a man who kills his wife. A murder that takes place in an isolated cottage in the woods. He finds that the ideas are coming to him quickly. A cigarette butt found in the woods will be a clue. A cigarette butt just like the one he found in the woods a moment ago, a butt belonging to the particular brand that Spencer smokes. Which is odd, since Spencer was quite adamant that he hates the woods and never ventures there. Still, curious little incidents like that can be quite inspiring for a writer. Geoff is getting all sorts of inspiration for his novel from Spencer’s slightly odd behaviour. 

There’s a certain growing tension between Geoff and Spencer, and between Geoff and Carol. There’s a certain piece of music that Spencer is always playing that is beginning to get on Geoff’s nerves. Carol is happy that Geoff is writing but worries that he may be becoming a bit obsessed by his story. Fiction and real life are two separate things and it wouldn’t do to start blurring the lines between the two. When you start to write a murder mystery you can easily imagine murder mysteries everywhere. Especially in isolated cottages in the woods.

Maxwell Munden directed the film and wrote the screenplay based on a story by Walter C. Brown. Munden is one of the more obscure British film directors of this era but it’s difficult to fault his work here. It’s a low-budget movie but it’s well executed. The screenplay is tightly constructed. We’re given just enough information to arouse our suspicions but those suspicions could point to several quite different conclusions and we’re not really sure whether we’re being led up the garden path or not.

The cast is one of the film’s major assets. Michael Gough is always a delight. He doesn’t overact as much as usual but there’s still that suggestion of mania just below the surface. Patricia Roc is excellent. Ronald Howard was a very underrated actor and he gives a splendid performance. He’s not entirely an unsympathetic character but he certainly makes us slightly uneasy. His views about artists and their right to pursue their creative ambitions regardless of the consequences are decidedly unsettling.

Most of the movie takes place in the cottage, obviously an advantage for a low-budget movie since not many sets are required. The scenes in the woods are well done. Munden doesn’t go overboard here - the woods are creepy but in a subtle way that suggests that their creepiness may be more in the minds of the characters than in the woods themselves.

The novel Geoff Carter is working on is a psychological crime story and the movie itself is a psychological crime story although we have to be careful not to assume that the parallels are necessarily exact.

The transfer is perhaps not quite up to the standard we expect from Network but it’s priced very reasonably indeed and in fact it’s really not that bad at all. The sound is just a little crackly in places but it’s not enough to worry too much about and mostly not enough to be distracting. The picture quality is not pristine and there’s a very small amount of print damage but it’s more than acceptable. 

The House in the Woods is a good low-key suspense thriller. It’s very much a B-movie but it’s well-crafted and benefits from fine performances from the three leads. Highly recommended.

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