House of Fear was Rathbone and Bruce’s tenth film together, and by this time the two men had both become well settled into their roles as Holmes and Watson, as had recurring semi-regular contributer Dennis Hoey (as Lestrade). This comfort in the roles shows in the great performances on display in this film, one of the highlights of the series. A genuine mystery plot reminiscent of the Golden Age of mysteries, the central conceit of the film would easily belong in an Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr novel, and does a lot to lift the film up. The author, Roy Chanslor, was also the author of two Westerns that went on to become hit movies (Cat Ballou and Johnny Guitar), as well as (with his newspaper background) helping to establish the “crusading journalist” trope with his scripts in the 1930s.
The movie is based on one of the odder stories in the Holmes canon, The Five Orange Pips. In it Holmes finds himself, for once, failing to save the man who comes to him for help. Even his attempts to bring the killers to justice are thwarted when their ship is instead wrecked in a storm. However, what most people remember it for is who his foes are in this – none other than the Ku Klux Klan. At the time Doyle wrote the story, the Klan were almost forgotten, and so he clearly saw no harm in appropriating them to serve as the villains of his tale. Of course, the Klan came back to infamy in the 20th century, making the description of them in the story seem almost prophetic. (It’s still not quite as jarring as the Mormon villains in A Study In Scarlet, but between the two it’s clear that Doyle saw a dark stain at the heart of the American dream.) This film owes little to the original story, apart from the device of the orange pips, which are used exactly as they are in the original – something lacking in any inherent threat that becomes fearful simply because of what it portends.
The story opens with an unnamed voice recounting the events that took place in an isolated Scottish house at the last meeting of a group called the “Good Comrades”. Seven men in tuxedos, who have clearly just finished a meal and are laughing and smoking and joking when their housekeeper arrives with a message for one of them, a banker named Ralph King. He opens the envelope to something within that the Comrades take as some prank poking fun at them. The next day King’s car goes off the side of a cliff and explodes in flames. Several nights later, as the Comrades gathered to remember King (with a toast, followed by hurling the glasses at the fireplace), a second envelope arrives for a retired actor named Stanley Raeburn. Ten days later his battered body was pulled from the water.
We pull back to reveal that the unseen narrator has been telling this story to Holmes and Watson at 221B Baker Street. Holmes asks what the envelopes contained, and is told that the first contained seven orange pips, and the second contained six orange pips. Holmes then asks what the club was about. Apparently several months before the seven middle-aged single members had banded together and left London for Drearcliffe Castle, the ancestral home of Bruce Alistair, the oldest member of the club. However the only thing that the members had in common were their large life insurance policies, something which Holmes deduces from the simple fact that the narrator is actually Mr Chalmers, a representative of the insurance agencies of London. Chalmers is worried that one of the Comrades plans to kill off his fellow members and collect their policies, a worry that Watson feels may be well founded. Holmes, however, wonders if the orange pips point to something deeper at work. He examines a picture of the Comrades, and recognises one of them as “Dr Simon Merrivale”, and while he doesn’t disclose how he knows him, it is enough to persuade him to accept the case.
One brief glimpse of the Flying Scotsman later and the two are riding in a coach, with Watson waxing lyrical about his ancestral Scottish homeland. He asks Holmes about Merrivale, and Holmes tells him that twenty years earlier Merrivale was a famous surgeon who was arrested on suspicion of the brutal murder of his young wife. While his testimony in the witness box was sufficient to see him acquitted, following the trial he disappeared from view. Holmes, however, believes that Merrivale was the killer and that this makes it entirely possible that he could have killed once again. They arrive in the village to see a funeral, although not of one of the Good Comrades as Watson fears, but rather that of a local villager. Their arrival at their hotel is noted by Dr Merrivale lurking at the bar.
Merrivale returns to Drearcliffe and tells the Comrades that Holmes has arrived in the village. Some greet this with irritation, though the elderly Bruce Alistair remains unflappably cheerful. Meanwhile Watson and Holmes have gotten local souse Alex McGregor drunk, and have learned from him that Drearcliffe was at one time a smuggler’s den, and rather more alarmingly that the house apparently has a curse upon it, that no man there shall ever go whole to his grave.
On that ominous note the housekeeper Mrs Monteith arrives, to summon the local police chief (also in the hotel bar) to Drearcliffe, as one of the Comrades has been murdered. He goes, with Holmes and Watson tagging along.
At the house, Holmes and Watson are greeted by the still terrifyingly cheerful Alistair, who takes them down to the furnace where the body of Guy Davies has been found burned to a crisp. Holmes finds that significant, as it once again holds with the legend of Drearcliffe. Alastair does not take them down himself, however, but rather asks Merrivale to take them, as he ws the one who found the body. Merrivale greets Holmes, and introduces the other two remaining Good Comrades – the bearded Captain Simpson and the moustachioed Alan Cosgrave. He tells them that Davies was burnt so much as to be unrecognisable, but that he was identified both by being the only one missing, and by his cufflinks found in the ashes. Holmes views the remains, and then asks Mrs Monteith for the undelivered envelope for Davies with the pips, which he had not received due to missing dinner. She hands it over, saying that it was pushed under the door as the others had been. Alastair then invites them to stay as Drearcliffe, an offer which Cosgrave enthusiastically supports while Simpson ob jects. Eventually, however, it is agreed that they will stay.
After the Comrades have departed, Holmes and Watson discuss their suspicions. Holmes claims to suspect “everyone and no-one”, while Watson finds grounds to suspect Simpson (shifty-looking), Merrivale (has form for this kind of thing), and Alastair (too cheerful to be trustworthy). The only one he definitively does not suspect is Cosgrave, who was so eager for them to stay. Alastair returns to tell them their rooms are ready and to bid them good night. Before he leaves, Holmes asks who it was that suggested they make each other the beneficiaries on their life insurance, and finds out – it was Cosgrave…
The next day, they are all gathered in the lounge chatting. Watson goes to try Simpson’s pipe tobacco, but is put off when he finds out that it is “Havana, flavoured with Jamaican rum”. The good natured ribbing is interrupted, however, when Simpson spots a needle protruding from his chair. Holmes retrieves it and spots a sinister stain on the tip, which he uses a nearby random chemistry set (no, really) to determine to be poison.
Later, at dinner, Merrivale proposes a toast of the Comrades to their departed friends. Simpson, however, halts before drinking his glass and notes that there is something wrong. Holmes tkes it from him and sniffs, detecting the smell of bitter almonds – prussic acid, another poison. Simpson responds with anger, and threatens the other Comrades before storming off. They (somewhat reluctantly) complete their toast, before Mrs Monteith arrives with another envelope of pips, this time for Cosgrave. This one was pushed under the door while they were all at dinner. They decide that Merrivale shall sleep in Cosgrave’s room with him to keep him safe. They head off to arrange it, while Holmes reveals to Watson that the two attempts on Simpson’s life were both sham. The first Holmes realised to be a sham when he checked and found that Simpson could not have seen the needle from where he claimed to see it, while the second was perpetrated by Holmes himself (with a non-poisonous substitute) to see how Simpson would react.
That night, Watson has fallen asleep on watch for the fourth or fifth time in the series, while a mysterious figure in a black coat and hat walks past the windows and peers in. Upstairs Holmes checks in on Merrivale and Cosgrave, to find the latter asleep and the former on guard. He is drawn away, however, by the cries of Watson who is being choked by the mysterious figure. It flees as Holmes arrives, finding Watson bound to the chair around his throat.
As Holmes frees him, Lestrade arrives with an associate in tow. As Holmes brings him up to speed, Alistair arrives with the news that Merrivale and Cosgrave’s rooms are locked. Lestrade breaks in with a skeleton key, and finds Merrivale knocked unconscious and Cosgrave disappeared. Watson treats the injured Merrivale, while Holmes observes that the rope used to tie Holmes had a nautical note. Lestrade determines to question Captain Simpson, but is interrupted by the sound of an explosion.
At the ruins of a storehouse (which Alastair confirms stored a quantity of dynamite), they find a mangled corpse, wearing Cosgrave’s ring. Footprints confirm that the body was carried there. Lestrade spots Simpson and asks him if he saw anything, and he claims that he saw Cosgrave entering the shed. Lestrade confronts him with the knot, but Holmes points out that anyone could have tied it. Alastair and Simpson depart to arrange a funeral for Cosgrave, while Holmes wonders who will be the next to receive the orange pips – a speculation that confuses Lestrade no end.
At dinner that evening, Simpson receives the dreaded envelope with the three orange pips. He demands to know what Lestrade will do, and Lestrade spirits him away and sets him up at a guarded location in the house. He sits on guard, and spots a mysterious shadow, which he follows but finds to be Holmes, rooting in a cupboard and finding a pair of shoes that matches the footprints from earlier, with sand on them. He and Watson set off the check the beach, leaving Lestrade on guard.
At the beach, Holmes finds a trail of footprints, which he follows. At the end of the trail, someone tries to drop a rock on them, but fails. Holmes realises that the trail has gone cold and decides to return to Drearcliffe, where Lestrade has just been locked in a cupboard. He calls for help, attracting Holmes and Watson who let him out. They rush to check on Simpson but find him gone. The guard on the window has been knocked unconscious. Lestrade assumes that someone broke in to kidnap Simpson, but Holmes points out that the glass was broken from the wrong side. Lestrade assumes that Simpson must have ran off, and that he must be the murderer.
Next day, Lestrade is embroidering old stories when a policeman comes in with news that Simpson has been found. Holmes immediately deduces that he was dead and unrecognisably mutilated, just like the others, which turns out to be the case. The body was identified by the tattoo on the chest.
Again that night, a message arrives, for Lestrade. He is worried that it contains the orange pips, but rather it contains an urgent message from Alex McGregor, the man who Holmes and Watson had been drinking with. Holmes and Lestrade set off to see him, leaving Watson on guard. When they arrive, however, McGregor has been murdered. Holmes realises that it was done by the Drearcliffe murderer, but was not part of the pattern as there are no pips and the body is not mutilated. They question McGregor’s daughter (played by theatre actress Florette Hillier, whose hairstyle is somewhat distractingly identical to that worn 30 years later by Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia). She tells him that he last left the house that afternoon to tend to his lobster pots under the cliff near Drearcliffe, and that he came back late.
Up at Drearcliffe, Watson hears a commotion upstairs and goes up to find Merrivale and Alistair’s bedrooms empty. He searches but fails to see a mysterious figure who hides behind a curtain. A knocking at the door draws him back downstairs and outside, where he is locked out in the driving rain. He runs around to the open window at the back (broken by Simpson as he escaped), and then opens fire on a figure lurking in the darkness. Holmes and Lestrade arrive to find that Watson has shot at an empty suit of armour. They soon share his concern, however, when he tells them that Alistair and Merrivale are both missing. When they go back upstairs, however, the find the two men in their beds, and while Alastair admits to having left his room for a glass of milk, Merrivale denies having left. Downstairs, they find Mrs Monteith on guard with a cleaver. Holmes asks if she saw who delivered the note from McGregor, and she says that she doesn’t know who it was, but he was dressed as a fisherman.
The next day, Holmes and Watson meet the fishermen returning from the fleet. He finds the fisherman who gave him the note. The man is unable to shed much light, however, apart from reporting an offhand comment McGregor made about not believing in ghosts. They decamp to the graveyard, where Watson somehow manages to dig a five feet deep grave-sized hole out alone in the short time since the last scene, with Holmes lending moral support. Holmes wanders off, and Watson converses with an owl (thinking it is Holmes saying “who”) before he reaches McGregor’s coffin and finds an empty coffin – leading Holmes to say that another murder is about to occur.
Back at Drearcliffe, they find that Merrivale the latest victim, crushed unrecognisably by falling off the cliff and having a rock dropped on him. Lestrade thus assumes that the murderer must by Alistair. Watson goes off to see the handcuffed Alistair, who denies the murders, to Watson’s scorn. Watson goes to take some of the late Simpson’s tobacco, but pauses and says that he ahs seen something important before leaving to find Holmes. Holmes, meanwhile, is measuring the length of the house in paces, before hearing a cry and going to check on Alistair. He finds him, but Watson has disappeared. Alistair tells them of Watson’s comment on looking at Simpson’s tobacco, which Holmes checks and finds to be all used up.
Holmes locates the entrance to a secret passage in the hall, and enters followed by Lestrade and the handcuffed Alastair. They descend to the old smuggler’s cave, and find all the supposedly dead Good Comrades, along with a bound and gagged Doctor Watson. He tells them that the Comrades were about to murder him and make his escape. Holmes congratulates them on their scheme, although he says that the pips were a fatal mistake, over-embellishing the plot. The Comrades fall to arguing and accusations among themselves, and Simpson attempts to draw a hidden gun but is forestalled by Holmes. Holmes explains that McGregor was killed when he saw one of the supposedly dead men walking on the beach.
Back at 221B Baker Street, Chalmers is delighted at the news of the Comrades’ conviction, while Watson is incensed that Lestrade is getting the credit. Alastair is also present, and he is simply relieved that the headline is not about him as it would have been had their plot succeeded. Watson explains to Chalmers that the murders were faked using corpses stolen from the graveyard to stand in for the supposedly dead men. Watson is unable to explain the tattoo on the fake Simpson however, but Holmes points out that Simpson himself was an expert tattooist. (Incidentally, if this had been an R Austin Freeman story, then the clinching evidence would have been that the tattoo was done post-mortem.) Chalmers offers Holmes a reward from the insurance companies, but he asks that they give it to Alastair, as if he hadn’t pointed them to the tobacco jar then they might not have rescued Watson before he was killed.
This is one of my favourite of the Holmes films from Rathbone and Bruce, perhaps because it is so different from the rest of the series. The lack of a defined central antagonist means that the focus remains on the main characters, and both Bruce and Hoey benefit greatly from the attention. The actors playing the Good Comrades are all solid. Aubrey Mather especially makes Bruce Alistair creepy enough that despite his cheerfulness he is still a solid red herring.
It’s not all perfect though – the Comrades’ plan is never properly explained, and seems to rely on both a steady supply of deaths in the village and on a willingness by the insurance companies to pay out very quickly. It’s also never explained how they knew about all the secret passages in Drearcliffe, especially when the house actually belonged to Alistair, and he didn’t even know about them. (In fact, an offhand comment he makes shows that he does know that the smuggler’s cave exists, but not about the passage in the hallway.) The orange pips, too, simply turn out to be a random bit of pointless theatricality.
Still, the performances make this one of the best in the series. Next time, Moriarty makes his final appearance, in the company of The Woman In Green.