The Terror Review
There have been a number of adaptations of Edgar Wallace’s The Terror down the years, of which this 1938 version was the second. A decade previous it had received the Hollywood treatment for a very early talkie (directed by Roy Del Ruth), and it would later pop up as an ITV Play of the Week in the fifties as well as a pair of German ‘Krimi’ pictures during the sixties. Each has their own elements of interest, of course, though none of them quite competes with the thirties’ take when it comes to the cast list. Here you’ll find Bernard Lee (best known for playing M in most of the Bond movies), Alastair Sim, Irene Handl, Wilfred Lawson, Richard Murdoch and Kathleen Harrison – all in the first decade of their respective careers. It’s an impressive line-up for a brisk little murder mystery.
The picture opens ten years in the past with a jauntily montaged gold robbery. Sim and Henry Oscar are the perpetrators, only their success is short-lived thanks to the mastermind behind the operation (the mysterious Mr. O’Shea, who has an air of Dr. Mabuse about him) tipping off the police. One more montage – a decade’s worth of newsreels superimposed over the pair in their prison uniforms – and we’re up to the present day. Sentenced served they have revenge in their sights which means an excursion to the Monk’s Hall Priory, a guest house that once served as an underground chapel complete with secret rooms and suchlike. From this point onwards The Terror latches onto various Old Dark House-isms: a mismatched collection of guests (including Lee as a perpetual drunk and Sim masquerading as a vicar) and things going bump in the night. There are also hints in a supernatural direction – is that the ghost of a monk stalking the grounds? – though it’s safe to assume that Mr. O’Shea (aka ‘the Terror’) is up to no good…
Despite having been both directed and adapted by a pair of actors – screenwriter William Freshman having appeared regularly in front of the camera since the silent era, while Richard Bird was a common fixture in ‘quota quickie’ crime flicks – The Terror is surprisingly cinematic affair. Though the quick-fire editing rhythms of its opening sequences are eventually tempered by the inherent staginess of the single-location setting, there is nevertheless a liveliness on display that proves to be a great deal of fun. Freshman previous writing credits were mainly on comedies, from which he seems to replicating much of the energy, plus he and Bird are clearly having a ball with the various murder-mystery tropes: the screams, the shadows, the cackling villain.
Furthermore, any feelings of being stagebound are nicely offset by the quality of the performances. When you have a cast including the likes of Lee, Sim, Handl, Lawson and so on, it doesn’t really matter so much if they are a little trapped by their surroundings. They may have been in the early stages of their (in many cases) prolific careers, but there’s still enough talent on display to make for a thoroughly enjoyable picture. Indeed, Sim already has his eccentricities down to a tee and – even uncredited – both Harrison and Handl can’t fail to make an impression as a pair of squeamish maids. Bond fans will also no doubt find much to enjoy in Lee’s drunk act – it’s a far cry from his usually screen persona (as well as M he could be found playing a succession of Captains, Inspectors, Superintendents and so forth).
Of course, there is still a certain creakiness to proceedings, as should be expected from a moderately budgeted British thriller of the period barely an hour in length. No-one’s going to claim The Terror as some long-neglected masterpiece, but then it arguably never set out to be one. It’s a brisk, sprightly little crime pic with an attractive cast and a certain amount of style. In my book that adds up to a perfectly pleasurable 73 minutes.
For some time now it’s been possible to watch The Terror as part of the Internet Archive or via a bunch of US DVD releases of barely watchable quality. Thankfully this new release from Network Distributing (as part of their ‘The British Film’ initiative) goes some way to making amends and, though extras-free, at least comes with a decent presentation. There are signs of sparkle, instability and other more obvious patches of damage, but the image is mostly clean and, more importantly, demonstrates a fine clarity – to the point where painted backdrops are immediately discernible. Contrast levels are also impressive and shadow detail as you would hope. The fuzzy, blown-out presentations of previous releases are a thing of the past. Sadly, the soundtrack is still a bit rough (I’m tempted to suggest that the hiss and such was inherent in the production given the age and budget of the film), though the dialogue is generally clear enough. No optional subtitles, however, English or otherwise.